The Definitive DTRS Guide, Chapter 1: Equipment Overview

Silent Way's Definitive Guide to the
DTRS Modular Digital Multitrack Recorder

Part of the tips and tricks public archive, courtesy of Silent Way Remote Audio Recording and Media Asset Management in San Francisco.

Copyright © 2010 Silent Way. Unauthorized reuse is prohibited.

DTRS Compatible recorders: Tascam DA-88, DA-98, DA-38, Sony PCM-800, Tascam DA-78HR, DA-98HR and DS-D98

Before I describe the "DTRS compatibles," I'll address the nickname for this format. The official party line is to call this format "DTRS," which stands for Digital Tape Recording System. Not quite as catchy as "ADAT." First they picked a five-syllable name for the DA-88, then they pick a four-syllable name as a supposedly catchier nickname. So, I've resorted to nicknaming each machine "88," "98," "38," "800" etc. If you agree, help to spread the convention.

The Tascam DA-88 and DTRS compatibles all record 8 tracks of digital audio on a Hi-8 tape and multiple machines operate together as one unit, synchronized with sample accuracy for up to 128 tracks. A 120 minute Hi-8 tape yields about one hour and fifty minutes of audio, but shorter tapes are recommended. The Tascam DA-78HR and DA-98HR are 24 bit recorders, while the rest are all 16 bit recorders. (Third-party accessories are available to turn the "16 bits to tape" machines into 24 bit recorders by means of bit-splitting which reduces the number of tracks.)

A 24 track DA-88 system with RC-848 controller and meter bridge

The very first units of the DA-88 had a few problems in the first production run. These were corrected (circa 1995), and any of these very early units should be brought up to date by an authorized service center or Tascam. There were also modifications made to subsequent units to improve head life significantly, reduce dust buildup inside the transport (including a plastic box that enclosed the transport mechanism), and more.

The system software has been updated many times. As of 5/2005, the last system software was 4.01. See "DA-88 Hidden Functions" to learn how to check the many different software revisions. The DA-88 is optionally equipped with the SY-88 timecode sync card (see below). Also contact Tascam for the latest operating system versions.

Sony's compatible deck is the PCM-800. It is a clone of the DA-88 with a few differences, and uses exactly the same internal mechanism. It adds balanced XLR input and output jacks, built-in AES/EBU digital I/O on a DB-25 fanout, and the timecode card is standard (see "Accessories by Tascam" below for the DA-88's optional SY-88 sync card). Cosmetically, the "play" and "stop" buttons are reversed, and the on/off switch is different. Also note that the AES DB25 uses a different fanout than all the other Tascam DB25 jacks, since it carries 8 channels in AND out. The PCM-800 does not work with TDIF-based bit-splitters, because it lacks a TDIF jack. These devices (see below) enable the DA-88 to function as a 6-track/20 bit or a 4-track/24 bit recorder.

The Tascam DA-98 (list price $6500.00) is the more expensive "second-generation" DA-88. It has confidence ("three head") monitoring, improved converters (18 bit A/D, with two kinds of dithering down to 16 bit, and 20 bit D/A), built-in timecode functions (improving on the SY-88), faster lockup, selectable operating levels, and a big LCD display for accessing all of those pesky nested menus and hidden functions. It also adds all of the improvements and features of the DA-38 (see below). Note that the DA-98 is not the same as the 24-bit DA-98HR (see below).

Tascam's "second-generation" DA-38 is essentially a DA-98 without the DA-98's confidence monitoring, extended timecode functions for SMPTE, nor 9-pin synchronization. It DOES fully sync up with a DA-88 via internal ABS and it does have a TDIF jack. Thus it is perfect as an additional ("slave") machine, because only the master deck needs to "speak" external timecode. Plus, the DA-38 boasts improved digital/analog converters (18 bit A/D with selectable dithering, 20 bit D/A), internal track bouncing and input assignment via a virtual "patchbay," and an oscillator for test tones. It is also lighter, smaller and quieter because they changed the power supply and removed the fan. (Note that the DA-38 does not keep one important setting in it's memory after a power down/up cycle: The "Dither" setting reverts to "OFF".)

The DA-98 and the DA-38 reportedly have a different polarity of word clock than the DA-88, and TDIF digital devices, such as I/O cards for digital mixers, have switches to allow for either type of TDIF clock.  (See descriptions of the Yamaha 02R and Panasonic DA7 digital mixers, below.)

The DA-38 and DA-98 have menu options to allow the TDIF digital protocol to send and receive 20 and 24 bits (although it would only be stored at 16 bits on these machines, so it would have to be dithered or truncated). This is to allow interconnection with the new, third-generation decks:

A 32 track DTRS system: DA-78HR, DA-78HR, DA-38, and DA-88, with tapes

Tascam released the DA-78HR around Jan 2000. Its "bigger brother," the DA-98HR, is described below. These are 8-track recorders which are backward compatible with all DTRS recorders. In addition, when put into High Resolution mode, they are also capable of storing 8 tracks of 24 bits to tape, and they do so without speeding up the tape, thus retaining the DTRS tape length!

The DA-78HR (original list price $3399.00, click pictures at right for detail) sports 24 bit converters, SMPTE timecode sync, and SPDIF digital I/O. It has an internal 8x2 MIDI-controlled mixer with panning and read-before write capability. This means that you could internally MIX all 8 tracks down to two tracks, or mix tracks 7+8 onto track 8. Other new features: storage of settings/locate points onto a tape, a record mute function, and now the LED level meters can double as indicators for track routing, errors, track delay, etc. There are In, Out AND Thru jacks for both Word Clock and MIDI. The DA-78HR is 3 rack-units high, and resembles a DA-38 with a darker front panel. It retains all of the features of a DA-88 (with SY-88 sync option) and DA-38, and it stores 24 bits! It does not have 9-pin control for video post-production, and it does not clock to video (but is does clock to Word, TDIF or S-PDIF).

The DA-78 works well, but there are few things to watch out for. See Silent Way's DA-78HR Special Report in the Tips Pages for the scoop.

Silent Way has the DA-78HR available for rent. Call (415) 826-2888 for details.

The DA-98HR (list price $6499.00) looks like a DA-98, and has the DA-78HR's features plus AES/EBU I/O, 24bit/96kHz 4 track mode, 24bit/192kHz 2 track mode, video clocking, and 9-pin control.

And there is a new DS-D98 Super Audio CD DSD recorder based on the DA-98HR...

Tascam system software versions as of 5/2005:
88  4.01
sy88  4.01
38  1.08
98  2.0 sync 2.07
78HR  1.17
98HR  1.58

Tascam Accessories:

First, Tascam's official add-ons (for all DTRS compatibles unless noted):

The SY-88 sync card (for the 88) adds SMPTE sync and generation with pull up/down of any frame rate, full Sony 9-pin P2 (RS-422) control, video in/thru for locking to blackburst, MIDI in/out/thru, MIDI Machine Control (MMC), and offset sync of up to 12 hours with subframe accuracy. In multiple machine setups, this is only needed in the first machine. See "SY-88 Hidden Timecode Sub-menu" for more SY-88 features, and download the original SY-88 manual and the SY-88 v4 supplement.

The RC-848 Remote Autolocator (aka the Sony RMD-800) offers two time windows and a 16x2 LED display, a jog/shuttle wheel, 99 locate points, track arming for 32 tracks and much easier ergonomic accessibility. Unlike the ADAT's BRC, it does not need its own power cord and all timecode I/O jacks remain on the back of the DA-88. It is also about half the size of the BRC with the same functionality. Version 4 software allows access to the DA-38/98's track bouncing features. The 848 can also control quite a few other types of devices, including many video decks. This model has been discontinued. Download the manual for the RC-848 here.

The RC-898 Remote Autolocator adds functions to the RC-848's design that parallel the new developments with the DA-98, such as individual monitor-selection for each track, track bouncing, bigger display window, etc. You can download the RC-898 manual here.

A 40 track DTRS system: DA-98HR, DA-78HR, DA-78HR, DA-88, and DA-88, with tapes

The RC-828 Remote can control up to four machines. It lacks the ABS/timecode display windows of the 848/898.

The RC-808 is the handheld basic wired remote.

The MU-8824 is the 24-channel remote meter bridge which can attach to the RC-848, or be placed elsewhere.

The IF-88AE digital translator is the original (now replaced) external rack-mount unit which translates TDIF to/from AES/EBU. The IF-88AE can pass 24 bits from TDIF to AES, but only 20 bits from AES to TDIF. The IF-AE8HR is soon due, which can do 24 bits both ways (6/00). But the Prism MR-2024T can do this already, and more (see below).

The IF-AE8 is an AES/EBU translator, which replaces the IF-88AE. It adds sample rate conversion and "bi-directional TDIF" (although TDIF is always bi-directional) with AES/EBU translation.

The IF-DA8 is a TDIF-to-analog converter with 24 bit D/A converters. It has (2) TDIF ports for cascading TDIF units, in essence taking an analog "tap" on the way from one TDIF device to another. It has selectable output levels, +15dB, +20dB, or +24dB. It is aimed at surround-monitoring applications.

The IF-88SD digital interface is an external rack-mount unit which adds SPDIF digital in and out.

The IF-TAD is a simple 8 channel TDIF-to-ADAT optical converter.

The MA-AD8 is an 8 channel digital mic pre amp with (2) TDIF out jacks, allowing the signal to go to two destinations.

The MMC-38 sync interface translates DTRS ABS sync to/from SMPTE, MTC and MIDI Machine Control. One report says it can read subcode TC from a deck without the SY-88. I'd have to see this.


Third-party accessories and 24-bit recording:

The Sony RMD-800 remote is a clone of the Tascam RC-848.

These interface with Tascam's proprietary digital 8 channel protocol, TDIF-1. This appears on a DB25 connector on all decks except the Sony PCM-800, which has AES-EBU instead. See below for cables. Interface devices for TDIF include:

The Prism MR-2024T, a rack-mount unit that enables the 88 to function as a 4-track/24 bit or a 6-track/20 bit recorder and also gives you AES/EBU digital I/O. However you will still need outboard AD/DA converters, such as...

The Pacific Microsonics HDCD Model One can act as an 88.2 kHz, 24 bit two-track AD/DA converter. It splits this massive data stream into two 44.1kHz, 24 bit two-channel feeds. A TDIF-equipped deck, in conjunction with the Prism MR-2024T in "4-track, 24 bit mode," is the logical choice for storage of this signal and is now fairly commonly used in mastering houses.

The Apogee AD-8000 has an optional TDIF card that can act as a stand-alone AD/DA 24-bit converter with bit-splitting to store the four tracks of 24 bits on a TDIF machine, or, with two TDIF cards, eight tracks on two DA-88s.  [ There are dip switches to select the bit-splitting mode and a switch that engages a sort of "handshaking" (LRCK?). This reportedly is needed when different TDIF-equipped devices are interfaced that are not actual decks, such as a Yamaha 02R, the Apogee FC-8 (see below), and the Apogee AD-8000. (One device needs to be the "boss," regardless of digital signal flow direction.) ]

The Apogee PSX-100 is a two-channel AD/DA that does all that the AD-8000 does in a two-channel package, plus it can do 88.2/96kHz sampling. This yields two tracks of 24 bit/96k, using all eight tracks of a TDIF deck.

The Rane Paqrat RC24T, much like the Prism unit, also enables the 88 to function as a 4-track/24 bit or a 6-track/20 bit recorder and also gives you AES/EBU digital I/O, but only on two tracks at a time.

The Yamaha 02R digital mixing board (and many of the new crop of digital boards) has an option to add a card that allows TDIF I/O. This allows a completely digital signal path without extra AD/DA conversions, and much cleaner digital submixing and bouncing of tracks. NOTE: The 02R's TDIF card has internal dip switches to allow it to accept TDIF from a DA-38 or DA-98, and other switches to allow higher bit rates. HOWEVER, on the first version of this card, these switches were not yet functional. Take heed or you will get ugly digital noise.

The Panasonic DA7 digital mixer also has TDIF cards for I/O, and these cards have dip switches to allow DA-38/98 use. For more on the DA7, see my report here.

Mark of the Unicorn has a whole slew of recording interfaces, but only the 2408 has TDIF (also the updated 2408mk2 and 2408 mk3). The 2408 Hard Disk Recording System is an interface for a PCI bus Mac or PC which has 24 channels I/O of TDIF and ADAT, as well as 8 channels of analog I/O and 2 of SPIDF. It can operate as a stand-alone TDIF/ADAT translator without a computer, and it also features a pretty astonishingly low price. There are four complimentary interfaces so far, giving many possibilities of I/O. With a MOTU Digital Timepiece, this system can do sample-accurate lockup with DTRS machines.

The Mark of the Unicorn Digital Timepiece is the United Nations of digital formats (or perhaps the Babel fish). It is awesome for syncing up the locate addresses of DA-88s and other formats (ADATs, etc), as it "speaks" each format's proprietary sync. With this device you can have DA-88s and ADATs all sync together without involving SMPTE timecode. (There is no TDIF or analog audio I/O on this device.)

Otari makes the UFC-24, a translator device which can run 24 tracks simultaneously between TDIF, ADAT optical, AES/EBU and more. This device is MUCH more useful when combined with an external wordclock generator, such as a Horita Blackburst, with an Aardvark Aardsync clock distributor.

The Translator, by Spectral Synthesis, translates to and from any of the following multichannel digital formats: TDIF-1, PCM-800 (8 ch. AES/EBU on a DB25), ADAT optical (ODI), AES/EBU, Yamaha's Y2, and Spectral SMDAI.

Apogee makes the FC-8 which translates TDIF to and from ADAT optical.

Crane Song makes the Spider, an 8 channel mic preamp/mixer with 24 bit/96k A/D and a TDIF output.

Cables: (also see chapter three, Physical DA-88 Connections)

First, a quick word on the popular 25-pin connector pictured to the right. Call it DB25. Sometimes it is referred to as "DB25," "DB-25," or even just "25-pin." These all refer to the same connector. The most common use is to call it DB25. This wiring was standardized in AES standard AES59. Don't get this confused with the different "Yamaha" wiring. db-25 pinout diagram (To make it more confusing, this connector is used for digital AND analog connections but of course the wiring is different for analog and digital.)

Many companies make DB25 snakes. The main difference between them is the cable quality, strain relief and thumbscrew usability. Few manufacturers have the right combination. In fact, some just plain suck. The thumbscrews are impossible to grasp, with cheap cable and connectors. BUYER BEWARE! There is a wide range of prices for otherwise similar cables, and many have annoyingly tiny phillips-head lockdown screws that strip too easily, or thumbscrew handles that come off of the metal shaft (leaving no grip at all).

Also, watch out for the wrong thread type on the lockdown screws. Some companies such as Digidesign use a different thread system than Tascam (metric vs english)!

The Tascam subsidiary Cable-Up makes more reasonably priced (and more ergonomic) versions of their cables (Note the "CU" prefix of some of the cables). Sometimes the Cable-Up cables are still branded as Tascam. The Cable-Up cables are white, and the original Tascam cables were grey. If you're going to build your own, download the pinout diagram.

COOL TIP: Balanced DB25 fanout snakes can be used as "modular" snakes: connect them together at the DB25 end with a Female-to-Female DB25 gender adaptor, wired straight through. This way, you can create any combination of Female XLR/Male XLR/TRS. This adaptor is available at any computer supply store, or seek Radio Shack part numbers 26-228 or 950-0255. I've also seen it here, here, here, here and here. Be careful NOT to buy one that is labelled "null-modem" as I think that would not be wired correctly for this usage. Finally, there's a female-to-male DB25 adapter that allows you to rewire the pinout (to make an XLR fanout Pin2/3 hot for example.)

  • Analog Audio, DB25 to XLR:

Proco makes the DA88XF, an analog fanout to XLR Female. It comes in lengths of 5', 10', 15' and 20'.

Hosa makes the DTF-800 series, an analog fanout to XLR Female. It comes in lengths of 10', 13', 16.5' and 23'.

Proco makes the DA88XM, an analog fanout to XLR Male. It comes in lengths of 5', 10', 15' and 20'.

Hosa makes the DTM-800 series, an analog fanout to XLR Male. It comes in lengths of 10', 13', 16.5' and 23'.

Other companies make more, such as Rapco, Whirlwind and Radial. For customized cables, try RedCo.

Note: Tascam's original grey PW8DX 8 meter (26.25 feet) balanced DB25-to-XLR snakes were originally wired PIN 3 HOT (in late 1993), but they changed to Pin 2 hot sometime in the 1990s. All recent manufacturers make XLRs pin 2 hot. (Silent Way has rewired these early snakes to be PIN 2 HOT, as per today's industry standard: Pin 1=Ground, Pin 2=HOT [+], Pin 3=Cold [-].)

  • Analog Audio, DB25 to 1/4" TRS:

Proco makes the DA88BQ, which is an analog fanout to 1/4" balanced TRS. It comes in lengths of 5', 10', 15' and 20'.

Hosa makes the DTP-800 series, an analog fanout to 1/4" balanced TRS. It comes in lengths of 7', 10', 13', 16.5' and 23'.

Cable-Up makes what appear to be unbalanced 1/4" CU/SU 904 (4 meter DB25 to 1/4" unbal), CU/SU 905 (5 meter DB25 to 1/4" unbal) and CU/SU 907 (7 meter DB25 to 1/4" unbal).

Other companies make more, such as Hosa, Rapco, Whirlwind and Radial. For customized cables, try RedCo.

  • Analog Audio, DB25 on both ends:

(Note that these are not wired correctly for digital TDIF transfers, only for analog-analog.)

The Hosa DBD series are DB25 to DB25 analog snakes (Tascam wired). The models come in the following lengths: DBD-301.5 (1.5 ft), DBD-303 (3 ft), DBD-305 (5 ft), DBD-310 (10 ft), and DBD-315 (15 ft). The DBD series is also available on EBay Stores (not an auction) as of 6/2007.

The Cable-Up CU/SD103 is a 3-meter DB25 to DB25 cable for direct analog-to-analog transfers.

The Cable-Up CU/SD105 is a 5-meter DB25 to DB25 cable for direct analog-to-analog transfers.

Proco makes the DA88DM, which is an analog DB25 to DB25 cable. It comes in lengths of 5', 10', 15' and 20'.

The Tascam PW-4D is a 4-meter DB25 to DB25 cable, and the PW-JD is a 1-foot DB25 to DB25 cable. I asked Tascam (in the late '90s), and they had no idea what these two cables were made for. I later found out that they were included with the mysterious Tascam QF Box, for interfacing gear with impedance-balanced systems.

  • Sync (DB15)

The PW-88S is the Tascam/Cable-Up 1-meter, DB15 sync cable to connect multiple DTRS machines together. It was also made by Hosa, called the TAS-200. It comes with a terminator plug. As of late 2006, these have become harder to find. EBay may be your best bet: Search for the Tascam PW-88S; or Search for the Hosa TAS-200. Also, near the end the terminator plug was finally available separately (Hosa TMN348).

  • Remote (DB15)

The RC-848, RC-898 and RC-828 remotes also use a DB15 cable, but it has pins 5-9 missing, is male-to-female, and is much longer than a regular sync cable should be. This cable also connects DTRS machines to the DM-24 digital mixer.

The CU/PW848 is the 5 meter remote cable.

The CU/PW848L is a longer, 10 meter remote cable.

  • TDIF Digital (DB25 on both ends)

Note that TDIF is completely different than analog, despite the same connector. It uses one DB25 connector to send eight channels of digital audio out AND eight channels in (analog is not bi-directional). Don't send TDIF to an analog input, it'll get ugly! More on TDIF at Wikipedia.

The PW-88D is the three foot long, DB25 digital dubbing cable to make digital copies between decks. Do not use analog DB25 cables, as the TDIF cable has a twist and is not wired "one-to-one." Make sure it is specifically designed for TDIF. The Cable-Up version is better and comes in longer lengths as well.

The PW-88DS is a short (2 foot) TDIF cable.

The PW-88DM is a longer (10 foot) TDIF cable.

The PW-88DL is a very long (16 foot) TDIF cable.

Hosa makes the DBK-303 3 foot TDIF cable and the DBK-315 15 foot TDIF cable.

Panasonic made a 10-foot long TDIF cable for use with the DA7 digital mixer, possibly named the DB/TDIF.


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